Software samplers: the Swiss Army knife of computer music production

Software samplers: the Swiss Army knife of computer music production

Keyboard prayers have always been called on to fill in the sound of missing instruments. The trend accelerated in the 1960s thanks to the Mellotron, which played tape recordings of actual instruments such as strings and flute when you pressed the keys. In the ’80s, digital samplers gave musicians a radical new ability: Any sound at all could be triggered from a MIDI keyboard.

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  • Samplers operate by playing back samples–digital recordings of sounds. The samples are in computer-type RAM memory, which loses its contents when the power goes off, so they have to be stored on a computer disk when the sampler is turned off. USB memory sticks are sometimes used instead of disk storage.
  • Many samplers today exist in the form of computer software. Hardware instruments such as the Yamaha Motif and Korg Triton series include sampling among their other features, but if you’re looking for a dedicated sampler you’ll find that computer-based sampling offers some potent advantages. The big screen is handy for editing, the computer probably has lots of RAM already (RAM tends to be an optional add-on with hardware instruments), and you’ll be able to run your sampler as a plug-in instrument (usually VST or AudioUnits format) within a host multitrack recording progam.

SAMPLING IN A NUTSHELL

Explaining the features found in today’s software samplers would take many pages. Briefly, samplers operate by playing back previously recorded sounds, such as a trumpet note, a cymbal crash, a spoken vocal phrase, or a drum loop. A single preset in a sampler may use only one sample, which is transposed up or down depending on which key you play. Or a preset may use dozens of samples, which are assigned to different keys or key zones. A sampled grand piano, for instance, might use a different recording for each of the 88 keys, plus have several different samples per key to respond to playing with different velocities. A group of samples like this is called a multisample.

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Creating good-sounding multisamples is a lot of work. Most software samplers ship with a variety of high-quality multisamples that are ready to play. You can edit these if you like–for example, by changing the filter cutoff frequency so that the sound is brighter or more muted. You can also record your own samples and assign them to the keyboard. A few software samplers are set up to record new samples themselves, but many of them require that you use a separate piece of software to do the actual recording. Once you’ve recorded a sample and stored it on your computer’s hard drive, you’ll be able to load it into the sampler.

Samplers have the ability to turn a short sound into a long one by looping it (see Figure I above). When a sample is looped, the loop will keep playing for as long as you hold down a key (or otherwise maintain a MIDI note-on message). Some software samplers also have the ability to stream long samples directly from the computer’s hard drive. A sample streamed from disk can easily be too large to fit into your computer’s RAM. Disk streaming lets the sampler play sounds such as the natural decay of a piano’s notes that last for many seconds and can’t be looped well because they’re constantly changing. No hardware-based sampler has yet been built that includes streaming playback from a hard drive.

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FILE FORMATS

Samplers can load raw audio data. This is usually in the form of WAV or AIFF files; the lower-quality MP3 format tends not to be supported by many samplers. They can also load preset files in their own format. The preset files contain both the audio data itself and information on how it is to be played–which samples are assigned to which keys, settings for envelope generators, and so on.

Many samplers can also load presets in formats that come from other samplers. For instance, a sampler from Company X might be able to load files in Apple EXS24, Steinberg HALion, TASCAM GigaStudio, and other formats. However, there’s no guarantee that the presets will sound exactly the same on your sampler as they did on the original instrument. Each sampler has some features not found on others. While the audio fries themselves should play flawlessly, the process of interpreting the data in the preset will inevitably be imperfect.

SLICING BEATS

Because sampled drum loops are such a key ingredient in modern pop music, many samplers have special features for handling beats.

  • First, you may be able to import (load) audio files in formats that contain both the audio itself and tempo information or “markers” that show where the drum hits are located. The three most popular formats are Apple Loops, REX files (which usually have the file extension .RX2 tacked onto their name), and Acidized WAV. After loading the file, you should be able to speed up or slow down the tempo of your host sequencer and have the beat synchronize with the tempo.

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  • Second, your sampler may have editing features with which you can slice up a recorded beat. You may be able to put markers on the individual hits within the beat, then slice up the sample at the markers and assign the sound within each slice to a separate MIDI key. Some samplers will then export the timing information on the beat as a MIDI clip: When you drag it into a sequencer track, the sequencer can trigger the sliced-up notes in the beat one at a time. This makes the beat almost completely plastic: You can add drum fills, substitute a new snare sound for the old one, and much more.

Phew, and everything has been completed setting up, you can now reward yourself a delicious chia nuts ice-cream (made by the best ice cream maker) and enjoy the music.

SAMPLERS VS. EVERYTHING ELSE

The great advantage of sampling is that you can play the actual sound of another instrument–not a synthesized trumpet tone, for instance, but the sound of a real trumpet. The sounds of acoustic instruments are full of subtle details that listeners recognize and appreciate.

The disadvantage of sampling is that these details will sound exactly the same each time the sample is played. Musicians who play acoustic instruments are constantly varying their technique, either consciously or intuitively, to produce expressive musical phrases. As a result, a sampler can easily sound great when playing a single note but stiff and artificial when playing a whole phrase. By using such techniques as multiple articulations (different samples that play back depending on velocity, or can be switched by pressing a pre-assigned key, button, or other controller) and “round-robin” programming (alternating through similar but non-identical samples of the same note to avoid a robotic, “machinegun” sound), the software engineers who design samplers have made real progress in getting around this problem, but it’s still an issue.

Synthesizers are good at emulating some types of acoustic instruments, but not so good at others. For instance, the FM synthesis technique that the Yamaha DX7 made widely popular in the ’80s can make decent electric piano and marimba sounds, but it’s not so great for bowed strings.

In recent years, synthesis methods using a technique called physical modeling have made strides in producing the sonic details heard in acoustic instruments, but physical modeling software has other limitations. Physical modeling uses lots of your computer’s CPU resources (playing samples requires much less computer power), and only the most popular instruments, such as brass, electric piano, and various classic analog synthesizers, have been modeled. Developing a physical model requires serious expertise, but anyone who has a microphone can record and play a sample! With a sampler, you can turn the pots and pans in your kitchen into a percussion kit.

In sum, a sampler isn’t the right solution for every musical problem, but samplers are an absolutely essential tool in most computer musicians’ kits.

JARGON JOCKEY

  • CPU: The central, processing unit in a computer or digital audio device is the main chip that performs tons of calculations each second in order to make sounds.
  • Key zone: A range of keys on a MIDI keyboard. Typically, a single sample in a multi-sample is assigned to a key zone for playback.
  • Plug-in: A piece of software–either an instrument or an effects processor–that operates within a host program, such as a digital, audio workstation (DAW). The settings of the plug-in are normally stored with the DAW’s song file, so all of your sounds will be automatically loaded at the start of each work session.
Production Music Contracts

Production Music Contracts

Even if you donat know what production music is, you are no doubt heard it in a movie cue, TV commercial, radio broadcast, or elsewhere. When producers for film, TV, radio, the Internet, or any other media outlet need inexpensive, pre-existing, original music for their productions, they often use production music. The same piece of music might be licensed for nonexclusive use to severalaor even hundredsamore producers for different projects and media, thereby creating a recurring stream of revenue for the content owner.

Some musicians create and own their own libraries of production music (organized according to genre, application, mood, or other criteria), but producing content for an established company can result in a greater number of licensing opportunities. If aproduction-music company offers you this kind of gig, you will be expected to compose, record, and possibly mix a specific number of songs or ad spots, with or without vocals, in a certain genre (such as pop, country, or jazz). In return, youall be paid a flat fee and possibly limited royalties in a work-for-hire arrangement. In this situation, the company that employs youaor, more typically, subcontracts your workais considered the sole author, publisher, and copyright owner of the compositions and sound recordings you produce for it.

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  • This article will detail some of the terms you might be offered in a production-music contract and how to recognize and avoid signing a nightmarish deal. Some contracts are fair and equitable to both parties. But if youare not careful, signing a bad contractaone tilted heavily in the production-music companyas favoracan cost you more money than you earn and expose you to potentially devastating legal liabilities.
  • I am not an attorney. But by using the information in this article, youall be able to spot and hopefully renegotiate any risky or predatory clauses before you refer the contract to a costly attorney for review. If the production-music company wonat bend on terms you absolutely canat accept, you can walk away without having spent a dime on attorneyas fees.

ALL TOGETHER NOW

Most production-music contracts stipulate an all-in arrangement. In this type of agreement, the company pays you a flat feeausually in installments as specific phases of your work are completedato use both as a recording fund and for your personal compensation. You must agree to be responsible for all costs incurred in completing the productions. These may include hiring a studio, engineer, and musicians; travel expenses; blank media; and all bills for phone calls, shipping, and postage necessary to carry out your work.

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The costs of paying other people to contribute their talents to your productions can easily exceed the flat fee you earn, so the all-in agreement makes the most sense for composers who can play all the music themselves and record and mix all the tracks in a home studio. Although some production-music contracts also pay royalties to the composer, they may not amount to much if the music is rarely licensed. The balance of any flat fee you havenat spent on production may be the only significant money you ever see for your hard labor.

To ensure that youall make a profit, itas imperative that you work up a detailed budget for your productions and compare it to your flat fee before you sign any agreement. You should also divide your estimated profit by how many hours it will take for you to do the work. If the resulting hourly wage is less money than you can make doing other kinds of work (for example, hiring your studio out or playing gigs) and your schedule typically stays busy, you may not want to accept the production-music work unless the flat fee can be negotiated higher or there are additional incentives such as royalties offered.

In negotiating your contract, you should always ask to receive 100 percent of the writeras share of performance royalties associated with licensing your work. (The writeras share is typically 50 percent of the total performance royalties earned; the remaining 50 percent is the publisheras share, which the production-music company typically receives.) The contract should specify that youall be paid your performance royalties directly by whichever performing rights organization (PRO) you belong to (BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC in the U.S.).

Make sure the contract states that youall get paid royalties quarterly (four times per year) and grants you audit rights. Some companies insist on paying you only twice a year so they can earn interest on your money while it sits in their bank account for an additional three months. And without the right to audit the companyas books, youall have no way of finding out whether youare being paid everything that is owed to you.

Performance royalties usually wonat amount to much unless your music is placed in either a TV series or a movie that is played in foreign theaters. (Movies played in theaters in the U.S. donat earn performance royalties.) Performance royalties for TV ads are usually negligible; youall probably earn only tens or hundreds of dollars from licensing one albumas worth of music during the course of one or more years. But once in a blue moon, your music might be used in an application where significant performance royalties are earned, and you should get your fair share.

WHERE THE BIG MONEY IS MADE

Performance royalties are important, but the majority of revenue is earned from synchronization fees. A sync fee is money paid by a producer for the right to synchronize music to, for example, a motion picture for theatrical release, a video in a commercial TV ad, or images and animation in a videogame.

Sync fees can be very lucrative. The sync fee for typical production music included in a 30-second Ford commercial on TV would likely be around $10,000; a longer ad might pay more than twice that amount. The sync fee for a major motion picture could bring in tens of thousands of dollars. You should try to negotiate a share for yourself of any synchronization fees your music earns. Think how exploited youall feel if your music ends up in a major movie in domestic release and all you earned was a modest wage from your flat fee. Meanwhile, the production-music company will be rolling in it. They know the value of sync fees and will likely resist giving you a share of this most important revenue source.

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Another way in which a production-music company might try to shortchange you is by directly licensing the performance rights normally granted by your PRO. This is not an inherently devious arrangementasome producers insist on procuring a direct licenseabut it can be worked to your disadvantage. When a company grants performance rights directly to a producer, it typically adds any performing rights fee to the sync fee to arrive at one lump-sum fee. The component parts of the lump-sum fee (including your performance royalties) may not be separately delineated. In this case, your contract with the production-a”music company will probably set forth a formula calculating what percentage of the total fee is assigned to your performance royalties. Guess who the formula favors?

If the contract disallows your earning any portion of the sync fee, the production-music company will try to formulate your performance royalties to be the smallest percentage of the total direct-licensing fee it can get away with. That way, it gets to keep the lionas share of the direct-licensing fee and you get paid only a tiny one-time payment instead of recurring performance royalties (which you would have received had you licensed the work through a PRO). Whatas more, by agreeing to be paid such a small share of direct-license fees, you incentivize the production-music company to bypass your PRO as often as possible.

Of course, not all direct-licensing arrangements work this way. Sometimes a separate fee may be collected by the production-music company for the granting of performance rights. In this case, the company may try to deduct an administration fee off the top before paying you your share (the writeras share) of the proceeds. This is absurd. Itas a publisheras job to administer copyrights, and itas a presupposed service they should provide to you in return for your surrendering to them the publishing income earned from your music. Imposing an additional administration fee is an attempt to get paid twice for the same service. Fight to have any such fees removed from your contract.

RISKING IT ALL

Production-music companies have no way of knowing whether the compositions they pay you to create are original and donat infringe on someone elseas copyright. For this reason, they usually include legal safeguards to protect themselves should an infringement suit be brought against them. The problem is, this portion of the contract usually makes you assume any and all legal liabilities, whether deserved or not.

For example, the contract may stipulate that “you indemnify the company for all litigation costs, attorneyas fees, and any other unspecified damages, loss, or expense arising from any breach or alleged breach of representations or warranties made herein by you.” Your warranties might include statements that your compositions are original and that all musicians you hired to play on your productions were contracted for in a buyout arrangement and arenat owed any royalties.

One problem with the foregoing indemnity clause is that anyone can falsely allege that your compositions infringed their copyright, and youall be completely on the hook for all legal fees the production-music company spends defending its own copyrights in your musicaeven if the case is dismissed for being frivolous. To protect yourself, you must insist that any breach by you has been reduced to a final adverse judgment by a court of competent jurisdiction (not by the local traffic court!) or has been settled with your written consent. Fight any clause in your contract that permits the production-music company to settle the lawsuit without your approval and makes you pay for all legal expenses. Such a clause would, in effect, allow the company to use your bank account to make a nuisance suit go away. The bottom line is that it is a publisheras duty to defend its copyrights. The burden shouldnat fall on you unless you are at fault (you did actually steal someone elseas song) or you still own part of the copyright and are earning a portion of the publishing income (in which case, legal expenses should be shared by you and the production-a”music company).

The production-music company may successfully sue another person or company for unlawfully copying your melody or lyrics covered in your work-for-hire agreement. In this case, you should share in any net proceeds recovered in the suit, after first deducting the production-music companyas legal fees and expenses. Beware of language in your contract that unfairly attempts to assign all net proceeds exclusively to the production-music company. Had your melody and lyrics been lawfully licensed to the defendant, you surely would have made money. Itas only fair, therefore, that you share in any proceeds recovered through the suit, even if your cut is just a small portion of the total.

No matter the terms of your contract, you should strongly consider forming a Limited Liability Company (LLC) before doingproduction-music work. Having an LLC will protect your home and personal belongings from any adverse judgment rendered against you in a lawsuit. If the damages are high enough, you can still lose all business assets you own, including your studio equipment. But at least youall still have a roof over your head.

REALITY CHECK

The production-music market is saturated. Many companiesaand many thousands of compositionsanow compete for the same licensing opportunities. As a result, the majority of music ends up never being licensed, or licensed for peanuts. Back-end payments (royalties and sync fees) may not amount to much, so you should make sure any advance you are offered is substantial enough to make all your work worthwhile.

Weigh the risks against the benefits of signing. If you feel like youare going to have to take a shower after signing, walk away.

Thanks to the Internet, the power to market and distribute production music is no longer the exclusive domain of major companies. If you donat like the deal being offered you, roll your own.

Contributing editor Michael Cooper thanks Andrew Keresztes, Craig Sharmat, Mike Levine, and Ted Greenwald for their helpful information.

Arts/music in production

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Playlist Weekly, The

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Ableton Live 7: performance-oriented music production environment

Reality check: You can download a fully-functional demo of Ableton’s much-anticipated Live 7, or even the whole-enchilada Ableton Suite, at the company’s website, as well as several new optional instruments. So, you can decide for yourself if you’re interested-which makes writing a review moot.

Or does it?

Despite Live having been around for several years, it’s still somewhat enigmatic. Some musicians had an immediate affinity with the program, while others couldn’t wrap their heads around it. And its chameleonic nature doesn’t help: Some think it’s a DJ program, some a DAW, some a musical instrument, and so on (hint: They’re all correct). So this is a perfect opportunity to give some subjective impressions about the program’s gestalt, and in the process, explain why I think Live is so incredibly cool.

OVERVIEW

What makes Live unique is its sprit personality. Its Arrangement view resembles a traditional DAW, with linear tracks, lanes for automation (having individual lanes for each automation parameter is new in Live 7), inserts, aux sends, and the like. But what attracts me the most is the Session view, which is a unique way of organizing “clips” (single-shot files, loops, or even entire songs) for playback that feels much more like a musical instrument than a sequencer.

Session view is a matrix, with columns containing clips, and rows containing groups of clips, which together constitute a “scene.” For example, one scene might have three clips in three columns: a drum loop, a bass loop, and a one-shot of some vocal phrase. Another scene might have the same drum loop but a different bass loop and a rhythmic piano rift. When you trigger a scene, all the clips launch simultaneously, based on what quantization option you choose (e.g., you can trigger the clips at measure boundaries).

The ability to assemble dips into different scenes is important because only one dip in a column can play at a given moment. But this is a strength, not a limitation, because you don’t have to trigger a scene to launch dips. You can launch any dip, at any time, and quantize its launch to the beat. So, suppose one column has nothing but drum dips. You can trigger a scene, and keep all the scene clips grooving along but select different drum dips as the mood strikes you. When you pick a new drum clip, the previous one will keep playing until the next measure (if that’s the launch quantization value you selected), at which point it exits gracefully.

What’s more, tempo isn’t an issue because Live’s audio engine will analyze a clip and stretch it to fit as needed. It can also transpose pitch, but as with other programs, the results usually sound less natural than when stretching rhythm. It does this with more than just short clips: One of Live’s near-magical feats is that you can bring in a long song that wasn’t cut to a click, and most of the time, Live will slice and stretch it so that it locks to tempo. No wonder DJs love this program.

That’s just the basics. As a side note, when Live 6 (reviewed Jan.’07) came out, I met with Ableton’s Gerhard Behles at the Frankfurt Musikmesse trade show. As he described all the new features, I mentioned that I felt kind of silly that I used Live pretty much the same way as I did when it first appeared. He looked at me somewhat quizzically and said, “There’s nothing wrong with that.” True indeed: If you watch 20 different people use Live, they’ll make music in 20 different ways. I’ve seen everything from avant-garde composer George Lewis run Live on two laptops to create sound collages, to DJs “spinning” on it the way others would use Native Instruments Traktor, to Kid Beyond employing it in his human beatbox performances, and I even gigged in Europe with someone who used it solely as a vocal signal processor. Personally, I use it for a solo remix act with live accompaniment–sort of a “performing engineer” thing. There’s no one-sentence description of what Live is.

NEW INSTRUMENTS

The three new soft synths–Electric, Tension, and Analog–were designed in collaboration with Applied Acoustics Systems and recall their Lounge Lizard, String Studio VS-1, and Ultra Analog VA-1, respectively. The Ableton instruments cost less, but don’t work with other hosts.

  • Analog is your basic two-oscillator architecture with some novel routing options; I’d put it in the “utilitarian” category rather than the “inspired” one, although I do like the sound quality. You get solid basses, ethereal string synth sounds, and more; scratch below the surface to find goodies like hard sync and filter saturation. If you already have a good virtual analog synth, though, you’ll find no “must-have” factor here.
  • Electric is another matter. If you don’t yet have a virtual electric piano, look no further. Because it uses modeling rather than sampling, there’s much more versatility concerning how you can vary the ton of parameters compared to a sampled electric piano.
  • Tension is another winner, and again uses modeling for a variety of string-like sounds, including basses, guitars, and various ethnic sounds. They’re an interesting combination of real and surreal; the guitars don’t sound exactly like guitars, but to use a visual analogy, they’re like airbrushed guitars with the color saturation bumped up.

Drum Machines is great if you’re into vintage drum machines. The samples are extremely good; while you don’t have the same breadth of sounds as Big Fish Audio’s superb Drums Overkill, you only pay about a third as much. I like it a lot.

The Essential Instrument Collection (EIC) sounds are produced in conjunction with Sonivox, and what’s there adds a lot to Live’s arsenal of sounds. For a really serious instrument, consider spending extra for Muse (reviewed Mar. ’07), Sonivox’s flagship “soft workstation,” or a similar program.

Finally, I’d classify Session Drums as good, but not great. For a little more you can buy, say, Toontrack EZ Drummer, which is more flexible and works with other hosts. On the other hand, Session Drums takes advantage of Live’s Drum Rack feature, so it fits Live like a glove, which makes editing the sounds extremely simple. We’re talking very tight integration.

You may prefer the a la carte approach to adding instruments, but the price for Suite with Live 7, all the above instruments, plus Operator and Sampler (introduced in previous versions), adds about $500 to the Live 7 download price. From a bundle standpoint, that’s a significant amount of instrument power.

IMPROVISATION

Another key Live element is that it encourages improvisation on many levels. In fact, I feel that using Live without a knob/button-laden hardware controller is like driving a Porsche with the parking brake on.

As one example, once you’ve loaded a loop, you can easily move the loop brackets to “flame” a different section of the loop (e.g., the middle two bars of a four-bar loop). Live does this without stuttering, and keeps track of where you “should” be in the full loop so that if you extend the loop all the way back, playback occurs in the right place.

You can easily draw and alter envelopes in real time, and MIDI is handled in a particularly “Live-ly” way: It’s more pattern-based and is optimized more for live performance than DAW-style offline tweaking. This isn’t to say you can’t convert a MIDI pattern into a linear track in the Arrangement page; but that’s something you can with lots of programs. Live’s take on MIDI improvisation is unique. Even its bundled effects beg to be tweaked and altered.

IN USE

Just as Live 7 came out, I was scheduled to do three “laptop jockey” performances at Winter NAMM. I chose to do a live remix (with overdubbed guitar) of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive.”

  • I ripped the CD using Adobe Audition (to be reviewed next month), then brought the file into Live’s Session View so I could derive various loops. Live did its analysis, and marked off the measures–not easy to do, considering how much of the piece is pretty free-form.
  • I moved the loop braces around, finding candidate loops like the classic guitar rift at the beginning, and the ambient, keyboard-soaked sections toward the middle. When I found a passage I liked, I simply invoked “Crop Sample,” and voila, instant loop. I grabbed about 16 “candidate loops” (including one long one, so I could move the loop braces in real time) before deciding to add some loops of my own from my AdrenaLinn Guitars sample CD.
  • I needed some dance-oriented drums, so I called up Simpler and loaded the “Electron Rock” patch. It was close to the sound I wanted; a little tweaking in Simpler did the job. Creating the MIDI pattern to drive Simpler was, well, simple–just draw and erase notes until you’re happy (see Figure 1 on page 57).

As Live now supports REX Files, I brought in a few loops from my Turbulent Filth Monsters sample CD. Live 7 adds amazing slicing abilities, by the way; you can take audio and slice it into little bits, triggered by MIDI. You can also drag these slices into Simpler (or Sampler, of course) for an instant glitchy drum kit. Although I didn’t need to use the slice feature for this particular performance, I mention it because in my opinion, it’s a strong reason to upgrade to Live 7. A strong point of Live in general is the ease of adding effects, so I tossed Redux (a lo-fi decimator) and a Filter Delay in Simpler’s signal path.

Next, I experimented with different clips combinations to create different scenes, then brought in hardware control. Live lets you control parameters from your QWERTY keyboard or a MIDI controller: I tied the keyboard to difference scenes, then used the faders on a Peavey PC-1600X to control the levels for 16 audio channels, and its buttons to solo the channels for doing breakbeats.

The remix was really starting to take shape. I opened up a channel for live guitar input so I could process my guitar playing with Live’s effects. What I really need to emphasize is how much fun this process can be–working with loops, changing stretching characteristics, throwing loops against each other to see what works–there’s nothing quite like it.

CONCLUSIONS

Live 7 incorporates several new features other than those mentioned above: It can export videos for which you’ve done soundtracks, let you nudge tempo when free-syncing to other performers, sidechain the Compressor, Gate, and Auto Filter effects, and employ new, high-res modes for the Operator instrument and Dynamic Tube and Saturator effects. The EQ Eight equalizer has been revamped, there’s a spectrum analyzer to check out incoming signals, an improved Compressor effect, and easier integration of external hardware effects–an input/output combination on your audio interface can be made to show up in Live’s plug-in menu. Another new feature, Smart Priming, “unloads” samples that aren’t in use from RAM, which lets you use large sample libraries without maxing out your computer.

That’s all welcome, but Live is about its core concept. The Claim Check (see above left) isn’t kidding; Live truly does “compete with everything and nothing, all at once,” because it can do a lot of what more conventional DAWs can do, but also has unique features that nothing else can touch. I could go on, but you probably get the point: I love this program. While I don’t use it as a DAW, it’s given me a unique, fun way to do live performance, and its DAW features come in very handy when editing. Even though Live 7 still isn’t a full replacement for a more linear DAW, the Keyboard editorial team unanimously agrees it deserves a Key Buy award. Why? There’s still no other software that lets you weave diverse audio and MIDI sources into compositions, remixes, and realtime performances with this degree of immediacy, fluidity, and addictiveness. Check out the demo, and you may fall under Live’s spell as well. It’s brilliant.

Cross-platform audio and MIDI sequencer with groove and live performance emphasis.

PROS

Brilliant workflow once you “get” the program. Stable. innovative audio engine. DAW-type elements have evolved over the past few rays. Handles multiple time signatures. Creative slice-oriented features and REX support.

Improved fine tempo control, Several effects support sidechaining. Updated EQ. 64-bit resolution for mixer and other summing points. Extremely high fun factor.

CONS

Costlier than competing DAWs. New instruments cost extra. Warping capabilities. while amazing, lack some of the subtleties of Acidizing techniques, Still can’t record solo button actions. Stilt not quite a full “DAW replacement.” Doesn’t support control surface protocols other than Mackie Control (and emulations).

Ableton Suite boxed, $999; download, $799; Live 7 boxed, $599; download, $499.

Ableton

www.ableton.com

VITAL STATS

SOFTWARE VERSION REVIEWED

7.0.1.

MINIMUM SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Mac: G4 processor (G5 or Inter recommended), OS 10.3.9 or tater. PC: 1.5GHz processor, Windows XP or Vista. Both: 512MB RAM (1GB or more recommended).

AUDIO HARDWARE SUPPORT

Mac: Core Audio. PC: ASIO, MME, DirectX.

PLUG-IN FORMATS HOSTED

Ableton, VST, AU.

NUMBER OF TRACKS

CPU-dependent, no limitations placed by Live software.

COPY PROTECTION

Unlock code provided upon registration.

GORY DETAILS

FILE FORMATS IMPORTED

WAV, AIFF, REX, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, Ogg FLAC, FLAC, Standard MIDI (SMF).

FILE FORMATS EXPORTED

WAV, AIFF, SMF, plus all video formats exportable by QuickTime.

AUDIO RESOLUTION

Up to 32-bit, 192kHz; 64-bit internal, calculations at all mix points; includes POW-R dithering.

LIVE PRICING AND FEATURES

Ableton’s product Line and pricing structure is as complex as Live itself is straightforward. The basic Live 7 program costs $599 boxed, and includes the Essential Instrument Collection 2. As a download, it’s $499, but doesn’t include EIC2. The flagship Ableton Suite Lists for $999 boxed or $799 as a download, and bundles Live 7 with the instruments Sampler, Operator, Tension, Electric, Analog, and Drum Machines; the boxed version adds EIC2 and Session Drums. Upgrade from Live 6, $159 boxed/$119 download. Upgrade from Live 1-5, $219/$179. Instruments (download only): Sampler, $199; Operator/Electric/Tension/Analog, $159 each; Drum Machines, $79. Session Drums or EIC 2 (boxed only), $179 each. Interestingly, Live 7 bucks the trend to bundle free instruments in order to enhance the value of an upgrade. All versions here, however, include the Simpler sample player, and Impulse, a drum sample player.

CLAIM CHECK

Ableton’s David Cross says, “For Live version 7, we focused on three major areas of development. Our first priority was to rebuild and enhance the core audio and MIDI engines, with 64-bit summing and improved MIDI timing. Our second priority was to integrate our most-requested features, namely time signature changes, video export, multiple automation lanes, side-chaining and tempo nudge. Third, we developed a new workflow for beat production called the Drum Rack. We think we’ve hit on something pretty cool here, using our Rack paradigm to help people construct complicated drum grooves in a simple interface.

“Our broad focus forces us to tread carefully in product development. We endeavor to implement features that simultaneously address the needs of multiple musicians from varied skill levels and disciplines. And thanks to ReWire support (both as host and client), we like to think that we compete with everything and nothing, all at once.”

Sonic Factory’s ACID: a breakthrough loop-based music production tool

Sonic Factory’s ACID: a breakthrough loop-based music production tool

I have seen very few products as eagerly awaited as ACID, Sonic Foundry‘s new loop-based audio editor. Since the NAMM show in January, ACID has been the industry buzzword for the ultimate mix tool – an editor that allows you to match the tempo and pitch of different audio samples in real-time. While all of the high-end audio editors have pitch adjustment and sample stretching capacity, the preview suggested that this was going to be the program to beat.

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The name ACID intimates that this product will be a deviation from the normal dull editing interface. Sonic Foundry go to some efforts to stress that we are dealing with acid in the funky, jazzy looping sense, but the LSD reference is always lurking in the background! While the interface has a cosmetic resemblance to the rest of the Sonic Foundry/Sound Forge line, ACID has a bold icon-based appearance with colourful buttons that pop up for each sample being added to the mix.

As with all of the Sonic Foundry line, the system requirements for ACID are reasonable; a minimum Pentium 133 or Alpha microprocessor (for real-time effects previewing Pentium II microprocessor recommended) Microsoft Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 or later Windows-campatible sound card, VGA display, CD-ROM drive and 32 MB RAM.

As you can imagine, a program that can analyze, adjust and tweak multiple 16-bit high-resolution audio files in real time, prefers that your computer be loaded with lots of memory. I found that the program ran very well with 32 MB, but infinitely better with 64 MB. Also, the number of tracks that you can play back at one time is defined by the amount of RAM, so you may wish to load up if this is a program that you will be using a lot.

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ACID supports a number of audio formats, but assumes that you will be working with WAV files. It allows you to preview any loop or segment before adding it to your mix, automatically matching the tempo and key in real time. The interface, patterned after Windows Explorer, allows you to “click-and-drag” to add or delete loops.

This all sounds rather boring, but the end effect is very much like magic. When the manual suggests that you should stock up on food because you will not want to leave the computer for a few days, they are not kidding. I deliberately combed the back pages of my hard drive, looking for the ugliest, most mismatched samples that I could muster.

ACID matched the samples into a coherent whole and produced quite amazing combinations. Within a few minutes, I was able to edit the samples with some ease to produce some ferociously original music. ACID allows real-time changes to pitch and tempo to these tracks including volume, pan, and effect envelopes for each sample to create a perfect mix between loops. You can also apply multiple real-time effects with DirectX Audio Plug-Ins. The program worked well with Sonic Foundry’s XFX family of effects plug-ins, but stalled badly when the more memory-challenging Acoustic Modeller was dialled up.

On the other hand, ACID provides quick access to Sound Forge or other audio editors, which is preferable to working with the little cramped editing window. The reworked audio can be directly output as WAV files or exported as digital audio tracks which are great for doing sub-mixes for musicians with small multi-track set-ups. ACID is apparently also compatible with Sonic Foundry’s CD Architect and direct-to-digital audio CD programs.

The ACID CD comes with a library of hundreds of loops in many different musical styles. As could be expected, the flavour of the samples leans towards techno and hip-hop, but contain a number of quite usable guitar, bass, synthesizer, drum, vocal, brass, turntable and sound effects directories. I suspect that within the year that the WAV format will become a new standard for sampling disks.

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Additional loop libraries are planned. However, the budding sample arranger can easily go on a WAV safari on the Internet if they are short on original ideas.

Speaking of the net, the best way to preview ACID for yourself is at the colourful Sonic Foundry website, http://www.sfoundry.com/.

Compared to the baffling list of features that most Sonic Foundry products boast, ACID is pretty basic stuff. You click on WAV files in your Windows file directories. They appear on the left as icons. You use a pencil tool to move the samples onto the editing grid. Everything syncs up as if they were recorded together. Everything can be fiddled with and modified after the fact. It works like a charm and sounds amazing.

To conclude, ACID is a program that you have dreamed about in a particularly happy, creative dream. All music software should be this simple and this funky. The package is a little light on documentation, but presumably this will come in time. If I have one criticism, the “paradigm” concept that is stressed in the very slim user’s guide does not make a lot of sense, but I suspect that most consumers will be able to figure the program out on their own.

One final note. ACID is obviously geared towards people doing loop-based music such as industrial, techno, hip-hop and dare we say it? Acid. This should not discourage other musicians and producers from checking out this very powerful and fun program. I would consider if very close to an essential editing tool for any recording set up. Recently, I have noticed that some great software tends to be overlooked because of the “dance music” stigma. In the case of ACID, it is time for a few of the squares to turn on, tune in and drop out!

For more information, contact: Efkay Music Group, 2165 46th Ave., Lachine, PQ H8T 2P1 (514) 633-8877, FAX (514) 633-8872.

Paul Lau is formerly a Roland Canada Product Specialist, and presently a MIDI/Internet consultant in Toronto. He can be contacted by e-mail at docaudio@inforamp.net.

THE MUSIC-CD PRODUCTION STUDIO

THE MUSIC-CD PRODUCTION STUDIO

BEFORE we specify the components of our basic and advanced studios for music CD production, it’s important to define what separates the two types. After some debate, we decided that what distinguishes the basic studio from the advanced is that the first equips you to work primarily on your own projects, whereas the second equips you to accept outside clients.

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  • Because you’ll be using a basic studio to work on your own projects, you can tailor it to meet your specific needs. For example, if you want to lay down mainly dance-music grooves, you won’t need to purchase elaborate audio-recording equipment. Or if you’re in a garage band and want simply to record a demo CD, choosing a full-featured recording environment and an easy-to-use MIDI setup should be enough.
  • On the other hand, advanced studios are designed to handle just about every project imaginable. Most personal “project studios have to be able to interface with other studios, and if you can’t connect, you won’t attract clients. This doesn’t mean that your studio must be able to accept analog 2-inch tapes, but you do need more than just a self-contained computer setup.

We’ve chosen flexible systems that provide a wealth of recording, processing, editing, and mixing functions; decent MIDI capabilities; and support for popular plug-in formats. In addition, we determined that the advanced systems should have hardware control surfaces, if for no other reason than that some clients get scared by computers and want to touch a mixing console. (For an itemized list of recommended products, see the table “Music-CD Production Studio Summary” on page 96.)

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As you’ll see, we diverged from each other at several points, including our basic system choices. But we sincerely hope that out differing views will be as instructive as our common positions.

I WANT a basic music-production system that can do it all–record, edit, sequence, and score. My wish list includes a digital audio sequencer, digital audio card, a software synthesizer and sampler, a couple of MIDI control surfaces for good measure, and professional scoring capabilities. Because my wish list is rather long, I’ll go through it one step at a time.

THE HEART OF THE STUDIO

A number of companies have quality digital audio sequencers with notation capabilities. They’re all competitively priced at well under a grand, so the choice is a tough one. But if you’re going to produce it all, Emagic’s Logic Audio Gold ($499) is my pick for the digital audio sequencer. It comes fully loaded with features, yet with a price tag under $500, it enables you to channel extra money toward other items on the list.

Although Logic Audio Gold is the most difficult to master of the leading digital audio sequencer programs, the payoff is great once you’ve conquered it. And you will always have room to grow because of the program’s great depth.

Logic Audio Gold is a fully integrated software system that gives you up to 48 tracks of 16-bit audio, eight effects buses, MIDI sequencing, and a full-featured music notation editor. The program is compatible with audio interfaces from most manufacturers, so you should have no problem upgrading your audio hardware in the future. In addition, when you want to move to 24-bit audio and increase the number of digital audio tracks to 96, you can step up to Logic Audio Platinum through Emagic’s upgrade program.

You can customize the program’s user interface to a high degree. One way to do this is to use the Environment feature, which allows you to define the flow of audio and MIDI data. With this feature, you can configure the various elements of your physical studio by connecting their virtual representations. This allows you to create templates of the configurations used for specific projects. By delving deeper into Logic Audio Gold, you can use the Environment to do more interesting things with the flow of MIDI data by connecting virtual objects. Preset Environments will help you get started.

Logic Audio Gold comes bundled with the Sound Diver librarian program, WaveBurner for burning Red Book–compliant CD-Rs, and BIAS Peak LE for editing stereo audio files. Combined with Gold’s recording, editing, mixing, sequencing, and scoring features, these tools give you the beginnings of a powerful workstation, and you’re on your way to creating a professional-quality CD master. Furthermore, Logic Audio version 4.0 should be available by the time this article goes to press. Among other things, the program includes 31 new plug-ins.

AUDIO I/O

You’ll need an audio card, so I’m choosing Emagic’s Audiowerk2 ($299), a 2-channel version of the company’s Audiowerk8 that supports up to 24 tracks with Logic Audio Gold. (For details on this new card, see the Sound-Design Studio, p. 64.)

MicroLogic AV, WaveBurner, and ZAP (Emagic’s audio-file compression program) come bundled with Audiowerk2, making the package a powerful system in itself. You won’t need MicroLogic AV, of course, because you have Logic Audio.

SOFTWARE SYNTHS

The logical choice for a Mac software synth and sample player comes from BitHeadz. The company’s Retro AS-1 analog-synth emulation software ($259) and Unity DS-1 sampler ($449) are good companions for Logic Audio Gold because they can work directly in the Logic Audio environment without using OMS.

Retro AS-1 gives you three oscillators and two filters per voice, as well as two insert and two global effects. It is 16-part multitimbral and 32-note polyphonic, with envelopes and LFOs limited only by the processing power of your computer. A collection of presets is included, giving you an immediate palette of vintage sounds. Retro AS-1 version 1.2 has improved effects, supports ASIO, and links easily to the Keyfax Phat.Boy MIDI controller (which I’ll discuss shortly).

Unity DS-1 is a stereo software sampler that requires no additional hardware. It supports a number of common sound-file formats, including SDII, WAVE, AIFF, SampleCell, Akai 1000, and SoundFont 2.0. Unity DS-1 can also record audio and includes an editor for sculpting digitized audio into the perfect sample.

The downside to these programs is that they are CPU intensive, and you’ll have difficulty running them simultaneously with the digital audio sequencer. You can circumvent that problem by recording some of the sounds into audio tracks when you meet your processing limits. This solution takes care of the other drawback to this setup: because of the nature of ASIO drivers on the Mac, you are able to run only one application at a time per audio card. A simple way to get around this limitation is to use Sound Manager as the Retro or Unity driver, plug the Mac audio outputs into the Audiowerk2 inputs, and record the sound. If Logic Audio supported the ReWire software link (as Cubase VST and Digital Performer do), this wouldn’t be an issue. However, these are problems I can live with for the time being.

SEIZING CONTROL

A mouse is not the ideal hardware interface to use when you’re editing on the computer. Therefore, I’m going to add two MIDI control surfaces: one with knobs and one with sliders and buttons. The Keyfax Phat.Boy ($250) gives you 13 knobs to grab. As mentioned earlier, it interfaces well with Retro AS-1 but can also be mapped anywhere else a knob is appropriate in the system. (The mapping assignments in the Phat.Boy are fixed, but they can be remapped and routed within Logic Audio.)

You’ll also need a simple but handy fader box, and the Peavey PC 1600x ($400) fits the bill. It enables you to mix your audio with real faders, punch tracks in and out with real buttons, and tweak a few knobs to control the software synth or MIDI-controllable effects plug-ins.

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You now have a complete system that will provide many years of productivity, with potential for easy expansion and upgrading.

MAKING WELCOME ADVANCES

Everything I have chosen for the basic Mac studio could be incorporated into the advanced studio; however, the advanced system is designed to do more, and better. Remember, the purpose behind an advanced studio is to be able to accept CD-production projects from a variety of clients as well as to produce your own projects.

The centerpiece of the advanced system that I’ve chosen is Digidesign’s Pro Tools digital audio workstation. Pro Tools gives you that edge to handle any sort of project that a client may bring. There is a wide range of software products that interface beautifully with Pro Tools, from sequencers and software synths to extremely powerful plug-ins.

The current state of the art is Pro Tools/24 MIX ($7,995), which provides all of the DSP needed for 16 channels of 24-bit TDM-based recording, mixing, and editing on one PCI card. By using a little less real-time processing, you can mix up to 64 tracks of audio with one card. This is particularly good news for Mac users who have only three PCI slots.

To take full advantage of the 24-bit processing from beginning to end, I have selected Digidesign’s 888/24 I/O audio interface ($3,695) for eight balanced XLR ins and outs with 24-bit A/D and D/A converters, eight channels of AES/EBU digital I/O, and two channels of S/PDIF I/O. If you need more I/O, you can connect as many as nine 888/24s together for 72 channels of discrete I/O (though you’ll need more computer muscle for that).

You’ll also need a digital audio sequencer. To match the depth of the Pro Tools system (as well as to take advantage of the easy upgrade from our basic Mac studio), I’ve picked Emagic’s Logic Audio Platinum ($799), which has all the features of Logic Audio Gold but fully integrates with TDM systems.

I’m not going to use a software synth or sampler with the advanced system because none of the current crop support the Digidesign Audio Engine, which is required to address the Pro Tools hardware. You could add another audio card for this purpose, but you’re better off buying Digidesign’s SampleCell II Plus PCI card ($1,295).

Long available on the Macintosh and recently released for Windows NT as well, SampleCell II Plus is a complete sample-playback/synthesis card that offers 32-note polyphony, eight outputs, and a powerful editing environment. All the number crunching takes place on the SampleCell card, which comes with 32 MB of RAM, so your CPU only has to run the editing application. Hundreds of megabytes of samples are bundled with the system. I’ll also buy the optional TDM module ($395), so that the SampleCell II’s editing environment can run as a TDM plug-in and the sounds can be triggered from within Pro Tools.

PLETHORA OF PLUG-INS

Now that we’re in the land of TDM, we can choose from any of the fine, real-time plug-ins from TC Electronic, Focusrite, Waves, Lexicon, Apogee, and Line 6, among others. Depending on your immediate budget and needs, you can assemble enough reverbs, compressors, EQs, and other effects to cover traditional signal-processing chores without using outboard devices.

The first set of TDM plug-ins you should get is the Waves TDM Bundle ($1,000), which is a good choice for basic mixing and mastering situations. Part of the Waves package, Q10 ParaGraphic Equalizer, handles EQ chores and provides two to ten bands of mono or stereo EQ per channel. True Verb is a fine-sounding reverb with plenty of parameters. You also get C1 Compressor/Gate, a frequency-sensitive dynamics processor for compression, expansion, and gating; L1 Ultramaximizer for maximizing volume when mastering CDs; S1 Stereo Imager for adjusting the stereo image of a mix; and PAZ Psychoacoustic Analyzer for real-time audio analysis.

INTERFACE ACE

If you don’t have good, reliable sync, you aren’t ready to bring in clients. You’ll also need a MIDI interface to hook up your Mackie Human User Interface (HUI)–which I’ll discuss shortly–and any other external MIDI devices you may have. Here, I’ve chosen to invest in a MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV MIDI interface/synchronizer ($595), which combines an 8×8 MIDI interface with a synchronizer that can handle word clock, MTC, ADAT sync, Superclock, and SMPTE.

Although you might not need it yet, you would be wise to invest in a Digidesign ADAT Bridge ($1,245) sometime in the future, especially if you add an ADAT to your system. With the ADAT Bridge, you get 16 channels of Lightpipe digital I/O.

THE HUMAN INTERFACE

If you’re willing to spend some more money on your advanced system, buying a better control surface would be a wise investment. The Mackie HUI ($3,499) is a fully automated controller tailored for use with Pro Tools. It features motorized faders, assignable V-Pot rotary controls, level meters, dedicated plug-in controls, tape transport buttons, eight assignable channel strips and buttons, two mic preamps, and a jog wheel.

Every function of Pro Tools is immediately within reach on the HUI. Because Pro Tools mixing is fully automated, you can get by with HUI’s eight faders. If you need to expand, you can add another HUI, or, if you need to save money, add a Peavey PG 1600x or two.

FINAL NOTES

Constructing a studio such as this one is somewhat pricey, but by investing in top-level gear, you can draw a more select clientele. Pro Tools audio and session files are easily interchangeable between Windows and Mac platforms, so sharing work with other Pro Tools studios is no problem. With this desktop system, you should be able to handle almost any project that a client presents you.